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Where I Work: Zai Divecha

Zai Divecha is a Bay Area native artist based in San Francisco, California, whose creative explorations began with metal. After graduating from Yale (both undergrad and grad), the cycling enthusiast became a metalworker who just recently transitioned into working with paper. Now she’s creating small and large scale geometric works made from paper featuring repetitive pleat patterns. For this month’s Where I Work, Divecha opens the door to her shared studio space in the Dogpatch neighborhood for a look at her process.

What is your typical work style?

I’m a morning person, so I like to get my day started early. A few days a week, I get up at 5am to do a 30-mile bike ride before going into the studio. There are few things I love more than cycling. And going out at dawn — when the fog is still thick and the light is a cool, grayish blue — is the absolute best.

I usually get into the studio by 10am, and work until 7 or 8pm, taking breaks to chat with my studiomate or take Simi out for a walk. Some days end up being more computer- or admin-heavy; other days are more focused on making. Unless I’m really in the zone, my brain typically shuts off around 8pm, and I’m useless after that.

What’s your studio/work environment like?

The studio is bright, cozy, and clean. A huge skylight lets tons of light in. When we moved into this space, my studiomate and I laid the flooring ourselves, and we chose a pale gray color in order to bounce as much light as possible into the room. We mop the floors regularly to keep the dust under control. Lots of plants, candles, and furs make it feel cozy and welcoming. I’m a neat freak, so I need the surfaces around me to be clean in order to think clearly and feel creative. The less clutter I have in sight, the more focused and creative I am.

My studiomate Emi Grannis is a big part of my daily life. She’s a metalsmith who makes fine jewelry, and she’s also one of my very closest friends. Even though we each run our own separate businesses, Emi and I help each other out constantly throughout the day: she’ll take photos or videos of me working for my Instagram; I’ll help her draft tricky client emails. She’ll weigh in on my design decisions; I’ll help her triage her to-do list. We know each other’s strengths and needs, and we’re good at making the other person feel supported, focused, and happy. It’s pretty special. I don’t know where we’d be without each other.

How is your space organized/arranged?

We have a small studio space on the mezzanine level of a shared metal shop called ShopFloor. It’s located in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, and it’s three blocks from where I live (best commute I’ve ever had). Our studio is 270 square feet, so it’s pretty compact. I have my little zone at one end of the room, Emi has her workspace in the middle, and at the back, we have a lounge area with a couch and a makeshift kitchen (mini fridge, microwave, tea kettle). The couch was a game-changer — having a soft, comfy place on which to take breaks (or naps!) means that our days can be longer, more productive, and more sustainable.

How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?

I’ve been working out of this building for two and a half years, but it’s only the last nine months that I’ve had this cozy studio space on the mezzanine level. Before that, I rented a bay on the ground floor, in the metal shop. I was making welded steel vessels and mosaic steel wall hangings at the time, so it afforded me easy access to the metal shop tools. But I didn’t have walls, private space, or heat, so while it was utilitarian, it was not particularly inspiring or comfortable.

But now that I’m primarily working with paper, a medium that doesn’t require any machinery at all, it’s been lovely to have a contained, quiet space away from the noise and grime of the metal shop. I have walls, heat and air conditioning, a comfy couch, and, of course, one of my best friends nearby, so I’m much happier and more productive now.

If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?

A teeny bit more space would be nice. I routinely have to downsize my tools, prototypes, and projects in order to make space for everything.

Is there an office pet?

Yes! My dog Simi often comes with me to work. She’s a chill, low-key dog most of the time, but she’s become infamous for starting to hump her dog bed as soon as clients walk in. She can be a liability.

Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?

I tend to listen to downtempo electronic music when working. It needs to be melodic, hypnotic, and a little edgy. Nicolas Jaar, Chet Faker, Polo & Pan, Glass Animals, Zhu, and Alina Baraz come to mind. Here’s a playlist I made of my favorite songs for work. If I’m doing repetitive measuring, scoring, and folding, I’ll often put on a podcast to keep my brain engaged. The Guilty Feminist, Reply All, The Daily, and Planet Money are current favorites.

How do you record ideas?

I have all kinds of systems. I have a notebook that’s just for my daily to-do lists, I have a separate sketchbook for drawings and diagrams, and I have a series of digital notes that are synced across my devices.

Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now? 

All of my inspiration boards are digital at the moment: I have dozens of Pinterest boards, and a number of Instagram collections of saved posts. Lately I’ve been saving things like 3D-printed ceramics, hand-carved wood home goods, geometric murals, blackwork tattoos, installation art, and parametric architecture.

What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?

I often start by examining prototypes and sample pleats I’ve made in the past. I hold them in my hands, and collapse and expand them. I imagine how they’d look or behave if I made changes to the pattern. What if I altered the angles or spacing of the pleats? What if I pinched it at one end, and let it fan open at the other? What if I made this out of a translucent Mylar instead of paper? What if I made a collage, where I put this pleat next to this other pleat? Then I’ll make a quick mock-up using scrap paper. I love that it’s so easy to prototype with paper. I can test out ideas quickly.

Once I have a plan, and I’ve figured out all the measurements, the execution is a series of repetitive motions: measuring out a grid, scoring lots of lines, and working with my hands to pleat the paper. I love settling into a meditative routine, and making only minor changes with each sheet of paper to optimize my efficiency and precision.

What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?

A tiny painting of Point Reyes by Susan Hall, who’s a dear family friend. Ceramic pieces by Two Hands Full, Pinckney Clay, and ShanMan Clay Co. A half-moon shaped serving board I made out of Cocobolo wood. A concrete sculpture of hands by Rheal. Two brass Ganesh statues that my mother gave me when I was little. A sweet note that Emi left me one day. And a handful of items collected from nature: a Cholla cactus branch, an antler, and a dozen potted plants.

Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?

Now that I’m primarily working with paper, my tools have been pared down to just the most unassuming and lightweight ones: pencil, rulers, cutting mat, X-Acto knives, painter’s tape, needle and thread, and bone folder.

What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?

The bone folder. It’s a bookbinding tool made out of bone that’s used to score paper. It lets me make precise, sharp folds. It feels smooth in my hand — so simple and primitive.

Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.

I have an iPhone X, a MacBook Pro, and a Canon 5D Mark II with a few different lenses. I store all my notes, documents, and photos on Box, so they’re accessible from any device (I used to work at Box; old habits die hard). Instagram is my main marketing and sales tool, so I spend a fair amount of time on it.

What design software do you use, if any, and for what?

When I was doing metalworking, I used Illustrator and SketchUp to design wall hangings and prep vector files for lasercutting. Now that I’m working primarily with paper, my creative practice is blessedly analog! The less time I’m on the computer each day, the better.

Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?

I recently finished up a large hanging paper installation, and my partner Phil Reyneri added subtle light effects to it using Lightform, his company’s tool for projection-mapping. Each edge and facet was illuminated with projected light patterns.

Do you feel like you’ve “made it”? What has made you feel like you’ve become successful? At what moment/circumstances? Or what will it take to get there?

I definitely don’t feel like I’ve “made it.” I have so many things I still want to make, and so many goals I still want to hit. But I suspect I’ll always feel that way, even if I’m making a lot more money. There’s a famous cycling quote by Greg LeMond that I love: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” I think this is true for running a business, too. I feel like I’m hustling just as much as I was three years ago, but when I compare the work I was making and the types of problems I was solving now, it’s clear that I’ve made a lot of progress.

Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?

I’m developing a series of smaller paper pieces with stitched red accents. The goal is to sell them framed in shadowboxes with glass fronts, so they’re ready to hang. I’m excited to offer pieces that are elegant but also accessible — at a price point that my friends could afford.

What’s on your desk right now?

I have a cutting mat, some rulers, a mug filled with pencils, pens, and X-Acto knives, a few pieces of pleated paper, my reading glasses, and my laptop. I try to keep it as bare-bones as possible.

Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?

Just a few random craft projects here and there. I have a set of ceramic fruit bowls I made in high school, and some dog beds that I sewed out of canvas drop cloth and painted (I made one for my studio and one for my home). One day, I’ll do a proper paper installation for our place!

Photos by Zai Divecha, Emi Grannis, Phil Reyneri, and Andy Wong.

Caroline Williamson is Editorial Director of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.